Postcard from the Frontline of Climate Change

This week, the international body of scientists that regularly review what’s happening with the climate (the IPCC) released their first report in eight years. The conservative, consensus-driven body of scientists stated in stark language that climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying and we are running out of time to reverse the damage. 

I read this report while on a popular vacation island off the coast of Massachusetts made famous by several presidents. Island communities globally are already experiencing the effects of climate change and sea level rise. Here, rapidly increasing erosion and more frequent storms have already prompted the relocation of a historic lighthouse and a large home in danger of falling into the sea. The IPCC report did not contain good news. It stated that sea levels will rise significantly, no matter what, at this point. If we can halt the temperature increase at 1.5 degrees celsius, it will be 6-10 feet. A quote that puts it in perspective:  “Today’s storm flooding will be tomorrow’s high tide.” If runaway warming hits, scientists could not rule out a 45 foot rise.

One of the island’s largest private landowners is The Trustees of Reservations, a not for profit that released its own study recently about the impact of climate change on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. It forecasts that by 2050 more than 800 structures will be lost to erosion and thousands more are at risk of regular flooding. It even offers a structure by structure map to show which home, business and roadway will be affected – and by when: 2030, 2050 or 2070. 

If you love these islands, or any island, it’s grim reading. Much of the critical infrastructure that supports the ferries, the lifelines of the island, will be affected. Some critical roads and bridges will experience daily flooding as soon as 2030. Popular harborside restaurants like Nancy’s and the Seafood Shanty are predicted to experience daily flooding by 2050. Hotels, including the Winnetu resort and the Kelley House, face significant damage from storm flooding every ten years. Thousands of private homes, many on the National Historic Register and yes, even President Obama’s new home, are at risk.

The report is no surprise to anyone who lives here. Martha’s Vineyard formed a climate change task force in 2019, but has had a hazard mitigation plan in place for many years. The Island Climate Action Network is a volunteer effort to educate and advocate for climate action that reformed recently from an effort begun nearly ten years ago. A quick perusal of the task force minutes shows both the determination to mitigate and adapt, and the frustration that these groups experience. Positive news that flood insurance is now a requirement. Disappointment when the utilities canceled a solar project and a proposed battery storage project was withdrawn. Existential concern that the only solution might be “degrowth” which feels economically and politically unattainable.

To me, these islands hold out the possibility of being incredible demonstration projects for coastal adaptation and resilience. Their scale is relatively small, but the concentration of brainpower and money that cares about them is extraordinary. In addition to former Presidents  and their entourages, they attract numerous celebrities ranging from Oprah to Michel J Fox.  Nantucket is the summer playground of choice for many in the business, private equity and finance world. If any group of people could galvanize the resources to take on the types of innovation projects that the world needs, it’s these summer residents and visitors. The Trustees report lays out some of what should be considered:  amphibious buildings that rise and fall, “sponge city” structures that absorb water, floating bridges and roads.

A number of years ago, I heard the story of Helsinki becoming a demonstration city for LED municipal lighting. Their early adoption, combined with a strong R&D culture and government funding, led to a number of LED lighting companies getting established, which has led to breakthrough capabilities like “smart dimming.” Visitors came from all over the world to see their lighting and went home to start their own municipal LED projects. Why Helsinki? According to Larry Keeley, the innovation strategist who told this story, “because it’s really friggin’ dark in Helsinki!”

So why use these islands to develop and demonstrate solutions that the entire coastal world will need? Proximity to Boston, one of the world’s best cleantech innovation centers. A state government that is very progressive on climate. Citizens who are informed and care, many with enough financial resources to be early adopters. And last, but certainly not least, because it’s going to be really friggin’ bad here.

Quote of the Week: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Francis of Assisi

Are you ready to build a better working world?